Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Collaborating With Conan Doyle

If the fiction writer is viewed as an artisan with the consumer end-products being short stories and novels, then the raw materials are imagination, research and life experience. So, if I write, for example, a murder mystery set in the 1960s, the characters might come from people I knew or be created broadcloth to advance the story, and the plot might stem from some social conflict of the times, such as anti-war protests or the counter culture, or revolve around the Big Three (sex, greed or revenge) with the milieu of the 1960s chosen simply because men still wore hats and women gloves.

When you venture into an already established literary universe, however, the "raw materials" of the story are provided and limitations are in place. A writer for DC Comics once told me that there were many things he would have liked to do with the Superman character, many facets of his personality that he would have liked to explore, but no matter what you want to do you always have to remember "you are a guest in someone else's playground, playing with some other kid's toys; when you move on, you leave the toys behind for the next kid."

You you can plot a free-for-all in H.P. Lovecraft's realm (as long as you kill your characters or have them go stark barking mad) and you'll be fine, but when you enter the universe of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there are Rules. After all, we're talking about Sherlock Holmes, the icon of icons, the most famous fictional character in the world, and every single mannerism, every little utterance, every little nuance has been the subject of intense study and several monographs by people who live on Baker Street, breakfast with Holmes, and likely have London fog in their lungs and a seven-percent solution coursing through their veins. Make a grievous error with the characters of Holmes or Watson (or even a lesser light like Lestrade), or erroneously describe a gasogene or tantalus, they will not only heap scorn on you, you might receive an envelope with five orange pips in it.

In other Sherlock Holmes books I've written, I introduced the character into original plots, though against recognizable backgrounds -- an elderly Holmes encountering HP Lovecraft in the 1920s, Holmes in a pure adventure story with Professor Challenger, Holmes as a consulting detective in the Dreamlands with Nikola Tesla as his Watson. In these and others, the character was established but the plot was entirely original.

When I wrote Sherlock Holmes and the Coils of Time, however, I had to work around an already established plot, the one Conan Doyle used in The Adventure of the Empty House, which returned Sherlock Holmes to life in 1894, after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls on 4 May 1891. To refresh your memory, Holmes returns to London and reveals himself to his shocked biographer, but his life is in danger from Colonel Sebastian Moran, dead Moriarty's former associate and the "second most dangerous man in London." Through a ruse involving Mrs Hudson moving a bust of Holmes behind a window shade, Moran is captured in the empty house across from from 221B Baker Street, ending the threat and bringing the bounder to justice for the murder of the Right Honourable Ronald Adair (actually, he apparently escapes the hangman's noose he is mentioned as still living in His Last Bow).

As The Doctor will tell you, there are points in time where you jimmy about, go on a lark, muck around, trample all over the sands of history without changing the warp or woof of things; and there are points in time which cannot be changed, no matter what -- Pompeii will always be destroyed by Vesuvius, the Great Fire will always sweep through London, and Rose Tyler's Dad will always die in a traffic accident on 7 November 1987. And it's "the burden of a Time Lord" to know what points in time are fixed and which are in flux. Well, I may not be a Time Lord, I may not be a madman with a Blue Box (I would like to have a Blue Box), but I surely know that Holmes' return to London on 5 April 1894, and all that events that occurred on that long-ago Thursday, is a fixed point in time if there ever was one. I could not change one single event, as recorded by Conan Doyle.

In Sherlock Holmes and the Coils of Time, I had my own original plot of Morlocks in London, vanishings in the East End, and H.G. Wells' Time Traveller. I also had in mind what Philip Jose Farmer did in The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, in which he took the events and characters of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, and made them set-pieces in a conflict between two adversarial alien races, the Erindani and the Capellans. In my story, Holmes did not return to London because of Adair's murder, but because of a letter sent him by a future version of himself. For awhile there are two Sherlock Holmeses coming and going from 221B Baker Street, which helps Conan Doyle explain why Moran thought Holmes was there when he was not -- afterwards Mrs Hudson is hurried on her way (and Watson too) when she asks about the soft moving sounds in Holmes' locked bedroom. After the events of the Empty House are played out, Holmes goes on the case for which he was really recalled to London.

Though the entirety of Sherlock Holmes and the Coils of Time takes place on Thursday, 5 April 1894, it also ranges from the beginning of time to the end of it. Although it was fun "collaborating" with Conan Doyle on a story, it was very difficult being original while remaining faithful to the source material. My favorite moment in the story, however, is my own  -- as Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Kent pass down Baker Street in a Hansom, bound for the East End and the and the year A.D. 802701, Holmes gazes up and sees a familiar figure in the window watching him, knowing that, in time, he will be the one gazing down from the window of 221B at a Hansom passing in the night.

The Time Machine
Classics Illustrated, 1951

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Books of Maybe Maps

I like to say I have a fondness for maps, but I heartily disagree with those who claim my relationship with products of the cartographer's art is more like an addiction. After all, my "fondness" for maps and charts of all kinds does not at all approach the feelings I have for books: then "addiction" might be an appropriate word. When we come to atlases, however, we move into dangerous territory, and over the years I have bought every affordable atlas I've come across, the older the better, and let's not even go into my collection of London guidebooks; but I'm at my most vulnerable when I come across atlases containing maps of worlds that never were, maps that chart the geography of the mind and the imagination. Two atlases I bought back in the early 80s still afford me hours of charted pleasure, nearly as much the the literary milieu from which the maps were derived.

An Atlas of Fantasy by J.B. Post was first published in 1973 by Mirage Press but because the publisher was a very small press (founded by writer Jack Chalker) dedicated to nonfiction and bibliographic works of a fannish nature, Atlas did not receive the distribution or recognition it deserved. Ballantine Books issued a revised mass market edition in 1979, for which they deleted 11 maps, but added 14, and it is this edition, its cover depicting a map collector's fantasy, with which most people are familiar. The emphasis is on science fiction and fantasy, so we get maps of various avatars of Mars and Venus, Middle Earth, Narnia and the imaginary landscapes envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, however, the emphasis is on terrestrial realm, as science fiction maps of worlds beyond the sky are specifically excluded, as are maps of Heaven, Hell, the world of the future, and real places festooned with literary traditions. Despite all that is left out, the inclusions make for a very thick book. Published in 1980 (revised in 1987 & 1999), The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Mangual and Gianni Guadalupi delves into almost all fantastic literature, published from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th Century, where some lost, forgotten or imagined realm on Earth is mentioned, most of it obscure to even the most widely read fan. What raises this book from its titular claim of Dictionary to Atlas are the tremendous number of maps, both original and those prepared for the volume.

Both these books were very in mind when in 1992, under my Running Dinosaur Press imprint, I edited and published a 67-page booklet entitled Fantastic Realms -- A Geofantastical Anthology of Prose, Poetry Art & Cartography. When I sent out a call for submissions and sent guidelines to interested writers I made it very clear that all stories and poems had to possess a strong "sense of place" if they had any hope of being published here; and I gave preference to stories that were "chartable," in that they told a fascinating tale while at the same time gave me enough information to draw a map. The response was good and I received about two dozen works worthy of publication; additionally, I was able to create eight maps, which I included in a section entitled "Cartigraphia Fantastica," attended by a short essay on maps in general, fantasy maps in particular. Several maps were derived from stories in the booklet, some were from fantasy traditions (such as a map of Osirian Africa and a kinetic mapview of Lemuria), but the one which I enjoyed most drawing and bringing to fandom's attention was a map of the city of Hampdon ("the Arkham of he West...") which was based on the works of my dear friend Duane Rimel (1915-1996), and although he did not have a work in Fantastic Realms, I had in the 1980s republished his classic fiction and poetry in The Many Worlds of Duane Rimel and The Second Book of Rimel, as well as an illustrated version of his sonnet sequence Dreams of Yith. The booklet was well received and sold out quickly.

Maps have always gone over well with readers of science fiction and fantasy. In addition to the two mass market books mentioned, there have been other books dedicated to a single author's vision, in which maps were well represented. It's hard to think of Middle Earth, Barsoom or Dune without thinking of maps. Indeed, there are probably more people who could point out Helium, The Shire or the Imperial Basin on a map than could find Colombia, Iran or Lapland...I just can't figure out whether that is good or bad.

from the "Dune" boardgame

Middle Earth from lotr net

based on Wilson

from ERB

based on Baring-Gould

from Captain Future

from Clark Ashton Smith

Thursday, September 6, 2012


It's been a couple of years since I last ranted about the evils of Kindle (ebooks and ebook readers in general) and predicted the end of civilization. Since then, nothing that has happened in the publishing world at large has changed my mind. If anything, the facts and figures streaming from the experts arouse my Inner Luddite to new wrath.

From 2010 to 2011, the number of ebook titles published increased 202%; for just the first six months of 2012, the increase from 2011 is 177%. At the same time, while hardcovers have managed to maintain their usual moribund sales rate (in dollars, but not units), sales of all paperback books fell more than 30%. As for the publishers' bottom lines, ebooks are becoming ever more important. Hatchette now counts on ebooks for 21% of its income, while Simon & Schuster rely on them for 17% of revenue and Penguin Books 14%; Chicago-based independent publisher Sourcebooks gets 28% of its annual sales from ebooks, British publisher Bloomsbury gets 38% of its income from electronic books, and even staid and conservative academic publisher John Wiley & Sons (founded 1807) relies on ebooks for 11% of its sales.

While I view this flight from the printed page with a mixture of alarm, disgust, terror and dismay, seeing within this trend the death of literacy, the end of libraries (public & private) and the rise of a new Dark Age, my sometimes writing partner for this blog, Arimintha, who lives and writes in Los Angeles, claims I am totally overreacting. She explains to me (as one might to a child afraid of the darkness, I suppose) that reading is not dying, but evolving, much as books themselves are evolving. Just as books replaced papyrus scrolls and clay tablets because they were a better medium for the information, so printed books are giving way to their electronic scions. She assures me people will not read less because of the change to electronic format, but will read more due to the huge number of free and low-cost ebooks, the ease of downloading files, and attraction of carrying a library in the palm of one's hand.

Loath as I am to admit it, she may have something there. According to Amazon, which dominates ebook retail sales in a way no other distributor can, their average customer buys "books" 3.3 times more often after buying a Kindle than before purchasing the infernal device. More than half (53%) of ebook buyers claim they read more often because of the ease and low cost of the new format.

Arimintha also informs me that many new books, especially textbooks she needs for her studies, are only available in non-print editions. And the Wife tells me that her Romance books are moving toward electronic predominance, especially in the reissue of older titles. As I mentioned earlier, thousands of ebooks are free to download through Many Books, Amazon, The Gutenberg Project, and Google Books, many of them facsimiles or new editions of rare books that would cost you thousands of dollars...if you could find them. However, we should be clear here: neither the ease nor the economy nor the ubiquitousness of electronic books lessen their danger to civilization. Like every technological wonder that was supposed to make life easier and bring the jubilee, electronic books carry with them the seeds of cultural calamity, the end of books as an art form, and a cheapening of the written word.

Perhaps the reason I harbor such resentment to the electronic form (yes, I realize and appreciate the irony of lamenting the end of civilization while writing on a laptop and posting to the Internet) is the comfort I've received over the decades from holding a book in my hand, in curling up with a book on a rainy day or in a silent house, in being surrounded by stacks of books, in having well-filled bookcases in every room, in the acquisition of a rare book or a book that represents the apex of the bookmaker's craft. Can you get all that from a reader?

Consider also the dependency represented by electronic books. "No, I can't show you my book collection because my Kindle is recharging," says a character in a cartoon I saw a year or so ago. Batteries and plugs. And, beyond that, oil, coal, natural gas, light-reactive chemicals, atomic-powered steam turbines, and bird-chopping wind farms. Today's batteries may be light-years beyond Count Alessandro Volta's first galvanic cell, but after 30 hours you're looking for the nearest wall outlet. According to a report by Pricewaterhouse Cooper, by 2016 more than 50% of books purchased worldwide will be ebooks, and that figure will be even higher in North America. Currently about 30% of the population owns some kind of ebook device, but even now that number is increasingly as the number of electronic devices capable of displaying ebooks (from dedicated readers to pads to phones) proliferate exponentially.

One day, the lights will go out, one by one, all over the world, and long before that the cost of electrical energy will skyrocket, either by design or through the natural depletion of resources. Not today. Not tomorrow. Probably not even the day after tomorrow. But someday. And then you can use your Kindle as a paperweight...while I light a candle.